We Can’t Understand Higher Intelligence

I’m always amused when I see someone pronounce on social media that they’ve “solved” the problem of artificial superintelligence, or insist that they have a 100% ACCURATE! prediction of where it will lead, often used as flimsy pretext to justify some awful idea like Universal Basic Income. This, despite the fact that some of the brightest minds alive today have been working on the Friendly AI problem for over a decade and still aren’t even confident in their predictions, let alone their solutions.

Too much has already been written on why we should or shouldn’t be worried about ASI. If you’re unfamiliar with the debate, there’s a good summary and great infographic at Future of Life. I won’t rehash that here. Instead, I want to explain why there are so many terrible ideas and predictions floating around the “I F***ING LOVE SCIENCE!” crowd (i.e. not scientists and certainly not AI researchers). And indeed, how this very same problem applies to human intelligence and infects every aspect of social and political thinking.

A good starting point is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The least-able are most likely to overestimate their ability. Even those who know they are below average tend to be way off in their estimation of how far below average they are, and cannot even conceive of the different levels of mastery. Ironically, knowing about Dunning-Kruger does not make one immune to it, leading to some embarrassingly cringey articles from self-important journalists. (I’m sure that conservative writers have done this too, I just… can’t seem to find any.)

Dunning-Kruger explains why, as a middling chess player, I can predict who will win in a game between amateurs, but have no clue what’s going to happen next in a grandmaster game. It also explains why many new business owners have very high turnover; they’re still learning the trade and can’t tell good from bad, and have to use a trial-and-error approach to hiring. Rating systems address this; in chess, it’s completely objective, and on Yelp it’s very subjective but still a decent predictor of outcome. With intelligence, the objective rating is IQ.

Despite appearances, I’m not an IQ-ist. I have never asked anyone for their IQ, nor told anyone mine without having explicitly been asked. You don’t need to be smart to be successful, or even to master a particular trade. IQ is not a reliable individual predictor of life outcomes. At an aggregate level, however, it informs us of certain social outcomes. A phenomenon called assortative mating explains why successful relationships tend to involve partners of similar IQ, which itself explains why marriage is for the rich. It also explains why high-IQ nations have more economic output than low-IQ nations. A lot of people know this, but what they do not realize is that the relationship between average IQ and collective outcome is not linear, it’s exponential.

The exponential relationship is important. We measure IQ on a bell curve, but the measurement itself is more like a decibel of sound than, say, a degree on a thermometer. Various high-IQ societies have each done their own analyses, concluding that an approximate 5-point increase is equivalent to double the actual intellectual performance (i.e. problem-solving speed). So, on average, a 150-IQ individual can solve problems about 60 times faster than a 120-IQ individual, and more than 1000 times faster than a typical 100-IQ individual.

Those numbers are insane to think about. Try to imagine driving your car, on the same roads you’ve always driven on, but at 3000 mph. Or 50,000 mph. It’s all just a blur at that point, and the 3000 mph blur doesn’t feel much different from the 50,000 mph blur; either way you’d probably crash instantly. An X-15 pilot could relate to 3000 mph in the wide-open skies, but navigating ground traffic over short distances at that speed would still be inconceivable.

But now imagine that you can drive at a normal speed of 50 mph, and everyone else around you is limited to 1 mph. A few thoughts might cross your mind:

  • Your commute time would be way shorter than everyone else’s.
  • Being stuck behind a 1 mph vehicle would drive you crazy.
  • Anyone else going much faster than 1 mph would stand out. A lot.
  • You still wouldn’t be able to see a car going by at 3000 mph.

It’s not too difficult to imagine other people being slower than you – either physically or intellectually. You won’t really understand or empathize with their experience, but you can interact with them, and you can predict their behavior. However, none of us – not even the smartest of us – are capable of even imagining higher intelligence than our own, because if we could, then we’d be more intelligent ourselves. We can imagine the outcomes of being super-smart, like having a dozen Ph.Ds and starting 50 wildly successful companies, but not the actual process of getting from here to there.

The exponential relationship between ability and outcome is described by a Pareto distribution or power law:


Ability can be intelligence, or anything you can observe or measure. These distributions pop up everywhere, by the way, as the fabled “80/20 rule”, although in reality it’s often more like 90/10, or even 99/1. It all depends on how far right the x-axis goes. In the above example, more than 4-5 standard deviations above average ability is literally off the chart for achievement. Not every field of human endeavor will have this exact scale, but almost all have this general shape.

If you equate “achievement” to “wealth”, and you imagine (incorrectly) that the amount of wealth in the world is fixed, then this graph looks terrifying. However, if achievement represents the production of wealth (or other resources), all of history starts to make sense. The poorest family in America today lives better than the richest kings and aristocrats of Europe in the middle ages, and it’s all because of the achievements of a very small number of inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, military generals, and so on.

As historical figures, we hold prodigies like Rembrandt and Edison in high respect, even reverence. They advanced civilization by leaps and bounds. Yet today, the trend seems to be fear and jealousy, as though these “1 percenters” are vampires feeding off us plebs. The reality is, if I, not Steve Jobs, had been the CEO of Apple, you wouldn’t have your iPhone, and Apple probably wouldn’t exist anymore. If you, not Lincoln, had been president during the Civil War, America wouldn’t be a single country. These outcomes required unique individuals.

Maybe the resentment was always there, and just omitted in the history books. Either way, the more heterogeneous a group, the more resentment you seem to get. Every identifiable subgroup seems to be equally hypocritical, believing that the lower-achieving subgroups simply don’t have the same ambition or ability (which is mostly true), but at the same time deluding themselves into believing that higher-achieving groups got there by cheating. This is essentially the basis for all collectivism and identitarian beliefs, which are best described as weaponized intellectual laziness rather than coherent ideologies.

An artificial superintelligence would be way past the edge of today’s Pareto distribution. The ASIs would become responsible for nearly all “human” achievement, unless we could keep up via genetic enhancement and technological augmentation. If we lag behind, then we would all become insignificant underachievers compared to the intellectual and creative marvels produced by the supers.

What I wonder is: are we ready? Assuming, hypothetically, that ASI is Friendly, are we emotionally and intellectually mature enough to deal with a social class over and above the current billionaires? Machines that we can’t even begin to understand, but are nevertheless responsible for managing vast amounts of resources and producing almost all of the new goods and employment opportunities? I’m not really worried about superintelligence destroying jobs or culture, because that’s not what actually happens when you add super-producers to a society. What I wonder about is whether we would be able to accept the new reality, or whether humans would collectively become so bitter that they’d immediately try to destroy it.

Futurists believe that ASI will save us and deliver a post-scarcity economy. I’m not sure if we could handle it. My hunch is, the only way we’ll be able to truly advance beyond General AI is by improving ourselves, not our machines.


How to Raise Human Intelligence

In a previous post, I talked about the importance of general intelligence in social, economic, and geopolitical outcomes. Physical health can be improved with medicine, and mental health can be improved with techniques like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, but the true nature of g remains elusive. What we do know is that adult intelligence is 80% genetic, making the task of improving average intelligence daunting, but not impossible. Some public figures don’t think we’ll ever be able to push IQ numbers up around the world, but the Flynn Effect suggests otherwise.

Here’s how not to go about raising intelligence: take the brightest boys and stuff them into suffocating, stultifying, soul-sucking feminized classrooms where all their innate curiosity and creativity is replaced by rote memorization, amphetamine-induced trances, and a hefty dose of propaganda. If throwing more money at public schools was going to solve the problem, it would have already been solved by now. The best environment for children to learn seems to be in their own homes, with a consistent caregiver and plenty of opportunities for unstructured play. The War on Poverty, War on Drugs, and War on Terror are all miserable failures, so there’s no reason we should expect a different outcome from a War on Stupid.

Public schooling was always intended to be civic education, and has generally failed at that, but just because we’ve been relying on one wildly inappropriate educational tool for centuries does not necessarily mean that there aren’t other, better solutions. In fact, we’ve learned a whole lot about intelligence and there are some very promising avenues of scientific inquiry and technological development on the horizon, any one of which could launch us at least partly over the Phase 1 hurdle.

Caveat: we have to accept that in the early stages, intelligence-tech will be limited to the wealthy and powerful. In that respect, it is no different from any other tech, including your iPhone, car, and plumbing. Breakthrough advances require a ridiculous amount of investment capital to push past the plateaus, like the latent heat of boiling water. So this will probably start with the billionaires, who will make it available to millionaires at a generous profit margin, who will come up with lower-cost versions for the middle class (or perhaps offer it as a high-skill employment benefit). Eventually the working class will have access due to falling costs, charitable donations, specialized loans, or some sort of government subsidy. This is assuming it’s actually left to the free market and not stifled by regulation and cronyism.

Brain Regeneration

The surest way to lower intelligence is with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) – a blow to the head. Mild concussions generally don’t cause permanent brain damage, but multiple concussions do (as with contact sports), and anything more serious is either fatal or can cause permanent damage. If you play Thief and are a fan of takedowns, then congratulations, you just ruined the lives of several simulated humans whose families would have been better off if you’d just killed them, because brains don’t naturally heal. Our brains are pretty amazing and can adapt to all kinds of damage, including losing half of them, but they don’t grow back.

At least, they don’t grow back yet. We now know that neural stem cells can repair the damage. Pro-lifers, don’t worry: these aren’t embryonic. This is not theoretical; there are clinical trials going on. We will soon be able to erase most or all of the injury-related intelligence deficit. CDC reports 2.5 million TBIs a year, and that’s only the people who seek treatment (i.e. not mild concussions).

Rough estimate: Assume not all injuries are equally severe, and we reverse a 10-point drop in IQ at a rate of 500,000 injuries per year. Also assume that this is retroactive, and we can capture up to 40 years’ worth of TBI victims who are still alive and still in the USA. That’s a national IQ increase of about 0.65. Not too shabby, and more than half of what’s needed for other western countries to make the jump from 96 to the magical 97.

Gene Editing

If you are terrified by the prospect of CRISPR, I don’t blame you. We don’t have the best track record when it comes to unintended consequences of genetic engineering. However, there are some genetic diseases that are actually very well-understood, but still not solved, like Down syndrome. We’re not yet at the point where this tech is being used (or even seriously considered) during a pregnancy, but as genetic screening becomes more advanced, demand will go up despite the inevitable controversy.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of genes affecting intelligence, but if we take a “simple” example like Down syndrome, it’s a 50-point drop in IQ for an admittedly tiny fraction – 0.15% – of births. Gene tech probably can’t be used retroactively, but assuming a birth rate of about 4M per year, correcting this defect over a 25-year period would affect 150,000 people, for a net IQ gain of 0.025. That’s not a lot, but remember that it’s just one genetic condition. If we can fix a hundred conditions each with less than 1/5 of the impact of Down, that’s another potential boost of 0.5 to the national IQ, plus a massive humanitarian benefit.

Synthetic Cells

Most people associate intelligence with brain size – i.e. number of neurons. A few years ago, researchers did a pretty amazing “quality over quantity” experiment and created chimeric mice with human glial cells and astrocytes. The human cells took over, and the mice performed better and faster at almost everything. These were still mice, with normal-sized mouse brains and mouse neurons, but a few small tweaks to the surrounding cells made all the difference.

This was an amazing discovery, like finding out that you could made your car twice as fast by swapping out the fuel injector. The entire human brain is still far too complicated for us to fully understand, but individual cells are well within the sphere of human knowledge – and engineering. And if human cells are better than mouse cells, it’s very likely we can design synthetic cells that are better than human cells.

The ethics are dicey, but the testing could still be done on mice (i.e. compare human-chimeric with synthetic-chimeric), and I know some crazy transhumanists who’d eagerly volunteer as human test subjects if the animal tests looked promising enough.

We may also be able to use synthetic neurons in the future, although so far, there’s no evidence that they’d be “better” than the ones we already have. Sorry, Data.

Smart Drugs

Limitless was a terrible movie, and the TV show is even worse. There is not and can never be a drug like “NZT”. But one positive outcome of all the fiction has been the exploding field of nootropics (smart drugs).

Experiments here are mostly anecdotal and self-reported, which involves some bias and placebo effect, but there are some very interesting results. Nuvigil is a legitimate wakefulness drug with some scary side effects. There’s phenylpiracetam, which seems effective enough to be banned as a performance-enhancer. Modafinil is apparently the gold standard for Silicon Valley assholes entrepreneurs. CILTeP was popularized by Tim Ferriss. Most of the reports describe similar effects of feeling clearer, sharper, more focused, and generally being able to get a lot done.

Disclaimer: I have never taken, nor do I endorse, any of these drugs. A lot of it is probably snake oil. But some of it is not; for example, phenylpiracetam is a legitimate prescription drug in some regions for treating cognitive decline (e.g. dementia and other non-TBI conditions), and there is promising research with LSD microdosing. I don’t think there’s any magical pill to boost real IQ permanently, or even temporarily, but if the research continues, there may be useful options that allow people to operate at a higher effective IQ, sort of like overclocking your CPU.

Because of all the uncertainty, let’s peg this at a potential +0.2 average IQ effect. The lowest on this list, but still merits a mention.

Brain Interfaces

Ray Kurzweil predicted that human brains will eventually extend to the cloud. His rationale is that they already basically do, just with a clunky interface: when was the last time you forgot your smartphone, and how did it feel?

So far, real-world brain-computer interfaces (or “BCI”) have built up some impressive yet still boring accomplishments like typing very fast. But the late Iain M. Banks wrote in his sci-fi about a “neural lace” that linked human brains directly to technology, and prototypes are already being tested on animals. And when it’s got Elon Musk’s name on it, you know that the ultra-rich are going to be firing billions of dollars out of their cash cannons at the problem.

If you don’t believe that a closer link to technology raises capacity for amazing intellectual feats, you aren’t caught up with your /pol/. Processing massive amounts of text, images, audio and video is basically all the human brain does. But our internal storage space is low-fi and extremely limited, estimated at about 2.5 PB, which sounds like a lot if you don’t know that tech companies are already storing exabytes (2.5 EB = 1000x the maximum brain capacity).

Give people the ability to interact almost instantly with data in the cloud – or even transmit it to each other in real time – and a reasonable estimate would be a 5-10 point effective IQ boost in the next 15 years. This does depend on technology outside the brain, but what part of our modern lives doesn’t?


Imagine being able to “record” everything you hear or see onto long-term storage without having to resort to endless repetition or clunky mnemonics. That technology is on the way. At first it will likely be directed at people with specific disabilities, but much like smart drugs, tech like this will eventually be used for intellectual performance enhancement. Memory function is one of the best-understood aspects of cognition right now, so memory implants will come first. Eventually we’ll start to see more inventions around executive function and emotional control as TMS experiments yield more discoveries.

I think of neuroprosthetics as the “offline” version of BCI. They have to fit in your head, which diminishes the possibilities, but on the plus side, they don’t rely on possibly unreliable networks and creepy gatekeepers. Neuroprosthetics are the most immature and least understood today, but I predict they’ll become the most attractive option in the more distant future (30-40 years from now, if engineering progress maintains its pace).

Bonus: Pregnancy Intervals

While researching this, I stumbled upon an analysis from the Healthy Home Economist suggesting that the ideal interval between births at least 3 years apart, which is significantly longer than the apparently common wisdom of 2 years. Lack of proper nutrition can really hinder intellectual (not to mention physical) development.

Nutrition isn’t a panacea for intelligence; we can’t simply dump free food onto every malnourished child and family, because that changes the incentives to favor dysgenics (more kids, lower parental investment). However, spacing out the births just a little bit more is a double win: it slightly lowers the birth rate for the lowest-IQ populations (who statistically have the most children), and also supports more intelligent kids with generally better life outcomes.

I am of course not suggesting this as a totalitarian policy like China’s “one child”. We should simply be making every effort to get the word out, and possibly modify any existing pro-birth government incentives to favor the larger interval.


There isn’t any easy answer to human intelligence, and many will argue persuasively that there are cultural issues driving the downward trend. They are probably correct, but unfortunately, what’s done is done, and changing culture is difficult and slow. Technological innovation, however, is happening at a very rapid clip. Intelligence tech is where our intellectual future lies, and where we need to invest if we want to avert long-term societal breakdown.